Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

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The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

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It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

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In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

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These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

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I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

6

Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

2,300 words

The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.

We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.

Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred is not a “person,” it is the living energy of matter. It has no “will” for us beyond the survival and integrity of what has been brought into existence. Obedience in this context is not a valid category and therefore being forgiven for the failure to obey has no meaning.

But this is nothing new. Asking forgiveness from “God” was problematic in our tradition even prior to the modern age. By the standard mediaeval interpretations, “God” was conceived as Pure Spirit, living in a state of impassable perfection and happiness in an eternal “now” outside time. “God” could not be affected in any way either for better or worse by anything occurring in the world of matter. He could not be injured, much less insulted. Since he has everything, “God” really does not want anything, not even our obedience — except as part of a general benevolence for the welfare of all things. No injustice could be done to “God;” nothing can be taken from “God,” especially unintentionally, and I think it can be reasonably assumed that the last thing on any normal sinner’s mind is an intention to insult “God.” So forgiveness, literally speaking, made no sense. There is no objective damage. And yet we pursued it.

Damage in the world of time

No matter what the “offense” perpetrated by a sinner, the only changes that occur are in the world of time. The primary effect is the loss of the moral integrity of the sinning human being who places himself out of sync with the natural order. The individual distorts himself in the perpetration of an act of selfish injustice. But damage is also done to other people by immoral behavior, and indeed, the very definition of immorality is the intentional causing of injury. Injury can also be done to organisms other-than-human and even the earth itself and its life-support systems. These are all potentially vulnerable. Forgiveness is not appropriate in these latter cases, however, because despite the objective damage they are not conscious agents capable of an act of forgiveness.

Trying to understand how “forgiveness” came to be such a transcendent category for us, despite the fact that it only makes sense within human society, and not with “God” or nature, I am led to consider the fear factor, a derivative of the experience of autocratic rule characteristic of the early governments of civilized man where our ancestral Judaism was born. Since “God” was imagined as “king,” disobedience and offense was expected to bring severe punishment as was usual from kings. Even after damage was repaired, the kings’ need to maintain control meant nipping disobedience in the bud. It demanded punishment, unless the offense was forgiven.

In the case of “God” as imagined by Judaism and Islam, mercy and forbearance were emphasized. People knew they could rely on the forgiveness of “God.” In the case of Western Christianity, however, the theology of Augustine of Hippo imagined a universal sin — that everyone was guilty of — that was literally unforgiveable. In such a scenario, this transcendent offense to “God” was the very fulcrum around which all of cosmic history turned. It was inconceivable that a transgression of such magnitude as to have caused the physical and moral deformation of the human race and require the sacrificial death of the very Son of “God,” could be forgiven by a simple apology. The Catholic Church as theologically conjured by Augustine’s theory was given the power to condition “God’s” forgiveness on a greater expression of remorse and acquiescent behavior. Punishment, therefore, was never off the table, unless a Church-guaran­teed forgiveness was obtained.

In this case the emphasis on forgiveness derived from the leverage the Church was given over the lives of people by Augustine’s theory — a leverage that it exploited to the greatest extent possible during the theocratic rule of the middle ages. This helps explain why our western cultural conditioning in this regard is so much greater than other traditions born from the same original sources. Convinced that “God” hated us for the insult of Adam’s disobedience, we spent our lives trying to secure the forgiveness of “God,” always aware that if we failed, eternal torment awaited us.

But once that nightmare is put to rest, forgiveness only seems to make sense as a valid interpersonal exchange among human beings. Let’s consider. People are vulnerable to having their resources stolen or destroyed, their livelihoods undermined, their reputations ruined, their physical integrity compromised. The community itself as a collectivity can also be damaged by having its structures skewed by the waves of repercussion that shake society’s confidence in its members’ benevolence and reliability. Greed, selfishness and injustice generate fear and distrust. Once society has to assume that its people are “like wolves” to one another, its very institutions have to adjust accordingly; they become disfigured and the people who are responsible for maintaining them are inevitably rendered less compassionate in the performance of their duties. One who has caused such damage needs to remedy it; begging forgiveness from the community and the individuals he injured is only one part of the solution. Erasing the damaging effects must include trying to disable their tendency to propagate themselves into the unknown future among generations yet unborn. Unless the perpetrator can convince others that his behavior will not repeat or worsen its effects, society remains damaged no matter how much it wants to “forgive” the perpetrator.

This “chain effect” by which injustice, greed and selfishness expands outward into the future is what the Buddhists call “karma.” What you do has repercussions that are not always foreseeable, and their effects belong to the injustice originally done.

The “original” injustice

In domestic situations the injustices committed by family members against each other can be subtle and profound, creating rancor and bitterness that also rolls on into the future. It generates reactive destruction in the lives of others who were not even alive at the time of the original offense and have no idea of the origin of the violence that is now being directed at them. I believe that it is axiomatic today to consider the family the initial link in the chain of causation that produces people who are predisposed to lack of self-respect, selfishness, defensive hoarding, competitive greed, injustice, disregard for the rights, property and labor of others, disdain for the weak and helpless, hatred towards authority figures.

Distorted attitudes in the parents, however, were likely the result of influences in their own childhood, and damage from the lives of ancestors is now being passed on to these children — brand new organisms which entered the world without predispositions of any kind. So while the causation extends into past lifetimes before the current family, and may be said to be itself the result of cultural factors inherited from outside the home and from unidentified events occurring in the even more distant past, each new birth provides an unencumbered organism, a new hope, as it were, radically capable of avoiding the anti-social proclivities that seem to make human happiness a chimera — an impossible dream. So because the actual “original sin” is not only diffuse and unknowable, it is also in the past — over and done with, and its perpetrators out of reach, beyond correction or control. If society is to be changed it has to be done by the presently existing individuals.

I believe that this more or less represents the analysis that gave rise to the Buddha’s insight that social justice had to be a function of individual transformation. He placed the entire weight for the termination of the chain of karma and the achievement of harmony in society on the back of the individual, regardless of the fact that the individual and his anti-social instincts may themselves be dependent on earlier lifetimes and social sources. The Buddha is saying effectively, “I don’t care how deep into the past its roots extend, if I can gain control over this karmic phenomenon it ends with me here and now! The rest is not my business:”

I have scoured the past looking in vain for the builder of this house. Many indeed are the cycles of life that contributed to it. But now I have seen you, housebuilder, you shall not build this house again. Its rafters are broken, its ridge pole is shattered, the mind, embracing the eternal has attained to the extinction of all selfish desires.[1]

The house is the human organism conditioned to selfishness. The housebuilder, of course, is the energy of the organism’s conatus harnessed to the delusional demands of the false self to achieve a permanence that is impossible. Buddha spent precious little time speculating, dwelling on the past or wallowing in remorse. His entire focus was on ending suffering for oneself and others here and now by transforming the affective life of one’s body into a body of desires that mirror the “way of heaven.” This concept of “the true path” or nature, what the Hindus called Brahma, he called the dharma. The Chinese called it Tao, The Hebrews called it Torah. I have called it LIFE — the living energy of matter. It is concretized for humankind in the universal call for justice, compassion and generosity toward one another and toward the earth that spawned us. Buddhists collapse it into an “eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The fifth category “right conduct” contains the five basic moral norms: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not transgress sexual standards, do not incapacitate yourself with intoxicants.

There is no time or place for remorse or a need for forgiveness in the dharma. Buddha’s dharma — LIFE — doesn’t need your anguish; if you suffer remorse it’s because you have added to the burden of existence for yourself and others by your selfish greed and self-projection. LIFE doesn’t want you to suffer remorse. It wants you to get back on track, transform yourself, and stop creating suffering for others. You only suffer grief and remorse because of the evil that you have done. Do right and you will stop the suffering that comes from remorse. The excessive wailing over your faults and the blame you have earned for yourself, is just another symptom of your illusory belief that you are a permanent fixture in the universe, too good and too impor­tant to have committed such failures. It’s another symptom of the attachment to the ego. You are not immortal; you are vanishing. Do the good you can before you’re gone.

Instead of remorse, change yourself. Instead of moaning and wailing over your failures, putting yourself first again as usual, put others first. Instead of pursuing forgiveness from an imaginary “God”-person, which you may think is some kind of shortcut to rectitude given gratis from on high despite having done nothing to earn it, start pulling your own weight in the effort to create a just, compassionate and generous community of human beings living sustainably on a cherished and well protected planet.

Remorse, after all, is nothing but anger at yourself. Yes, you betrayed yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on. That’s a forgiveness that makes sense. If we are enjoined to control our anger at others, we are also required to control the self-indulgent anger we heap on ourselves for having failed to achieve permanence and eternity in the good memories of others. It is just another ego trip. In the Dhammapada on anger, the Buddha addresses the self-recrimination that is just another example of a waste of time, postponing the real work of self-transformation:

There is an old saying: “People will blame you if you say too much; they will blame you if you say too little; they will blame you if you say just enough.” No one in this world escapes blame. There never was and never will be anyone who receives all praise or all blame.[2]

Rather than worrying about how we look in the eyes of others, the Buddha advises us to engage in the struggle to transform our delusional “self” into the Self that lies at the core of our being, the self that is the mirror and agent of the dharma — LIFE. Take the time and energy you would spend in “securing” forgiveness for yourself and invest it instead in the practices of mindfulness and meditation that will help you identify the disguises of your self-serving self. Turn your efforts to living with justice, compassion and generosity, and whatever you had hoped to gain from forgiveness will be yours and more.

 

 

[1] The Dhammapada ch. 11 ## 153-154, a composite of various translators.

 [2] Siddhartha Gautama, The Dhammapada, ch XVII ## 227-228 tr. Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Tomales CA, 2007.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Psalms 22, 23, 24

These three commentaries will be simultaneously added to the “Page” titled “Commentary on the Psalms” found in the list of “Pages” in the sidebar to the right under the books. Not all psalm commentaries are published as a NEW POST before being added to the text on the “Page.” Please note that all the psalms from 1 to 24 are currently included.

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PSALM 22

Background. Roland Murphy ( Jerome Biblical Commentary ) says the subject of this well-known lament is not a king but an individual Israelite. The suffering cited seems to be both physical and from the attacks of enemies.

Reflection. The beginning of this psalm in Aramaic, “eli, eli, lama sabachthani” is put into the mouth of Jesus on the cross (Mt 27:46) indicating that the psalm was probably already part of an identified pool of messianic expectations to which Jews had recourse at the time of Jesus. It has been associated with Jesus’ crucifixion for the entire history of Christianity so it’s almost impossible to pray it without evoking that imagery.

But the psalm obviously antedated Jesus’ ordeal. It was composed by a poet who either suffered through similar torments himself or was intimately empathetic with others who had. The imagery of attack is stark, violent and the attackers brutal, cynical and merciless. The pleading is desperate and abandoned. The psalmist’s cry for help, as usual, cites the past miraculous intervention of Yahweh on behalf of the Israelites. This can only be taken metaphorically, for none of it happened as written and, at any rate, cannot be seriously adduced. LIFE does not perform miracles. What LIFE provides is the marvel of having shared itself with us all.

So trust remains. As our ancestors trusted, so do we continue to trust. We trust LIFE that once we have been made participants in its energy we will always be part of it. We are LIFE’s progeny — its offspring. We are bound to LIFE by our genetic inheritance; we cannot help ourselves: we are living matter and we have to live as matter. This is an attachment that is not subject to ascetical transcendence. It is embedded in our blood and bones; it is not ours to dismiss or discard. The psalmist’s anguish makes no effort to repress or mitigate that reality.

But we know that LIFE will not abandon us. We can rely on LIFE because we share its obsessions: it cannot stop living; we know that from the evidence of our own organism. How that will spell itself out in the future as LIFE finds one way after another to survive through evolution driven by reproduction, we cannot predict. But just as our birth as humans revealed to us that, as matter, we have been part of the pool of matter’s living energy since the beginning of time, so too we have learned that there seems to be no way that will ever end: for the pool of matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed, just recycled.

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

The psalmist uses his very disillusionment about “God’s” concern for him, to “shame” God into responding. “See what you have made me go through.” But he immediately realizes what he has been calling “God” is LIFE itself, and assumes a posture of grateful worship.

3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Trust is the key. There is only trust. It’s all we’ve got. It was all Jesus had, that’s why it was appropriate for Matthew to put this psalm in his mouth. There are no miracles and the very plight of the psalmist is already proof of that. Why pray for something to be reversed that, if Yahweh had the power, would never have occurred to begin with? We trust. The point of prayer is not miracles, it’s to dispose ourselves to trust. And the basis of our trust is not some past miracle, but the marvel of material LIFE and this universe of living matter which we experience consciously in each present moment as it arrives.

6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock at me; they make faces at me, they shake their heads;

8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver — let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

The psalmist’s enemies taunt him with LIFE’s inaction on his behalf, the implication being that LIFE has abandoned him. Other translations emphasis the “if” factor. It is the argument of the taunters of Jesus: “if” you speak for Yahweh as you claim, and “if” he loves you, let him take you down from the cross. What they are saying, of course, is that the psalmist’s very suffering justifies their cruelty and disregard for LIFE’s rule of justice. It’s an argument that cannot be refuted by facts and logic. It is only overcome by an interpersonal insight: LIFE is power and can be trusted. I know LIFE interiorly, beyond facts and logic. Absence of miracles is no proof of the absence of LIFE, for LIFE does not perform miracles. LIFE shared is the marvel that engenders trust.

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Their argument has no merit, for I have another source of information: me. LIFE has been with me from the start and never left me. LIFE has taken up residence in me. I know LIFE’s potential.  LIFE, come alive in me!

12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;

17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;

18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Enemies are trying to destroy my integrity as a human individual and the community as a society of justice. These forces hostile to LIFE, forces of the selfish human “self,” are much stronger than anything I have seen before. They have immobilized me. I am terrified. I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t defend myself. I feel like I’m already dead. These enemies of LIFE are already dividing up the spoils from my certain defeat.

19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

My LIFE, you are alive in me. I can feel your power in my body in each present moment. This is not my power, it’s yours, stronger than the forces arrayed against LIFE. I am here … and I am alive now! This is LIFE as me. What more can I ask? What more do I need? I can do what LIFE does for LIFE’s power lives in me with my face. I am part of that and cannot ever be excluded.

LIFE uses death itself to promote and expand LIFE. Victory is assured. It makes me want to shout for joy and invite everyone to join me.

23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Together with the universal family of humankind my song of gratitude to LIFE is endless. LIFE dominates the universe. It rules both the powerful conquerors and the lowly ones they conquer. In the end, all people will shout with gratitude and joy for the gifts of LIFE. What marvels LIFE will evolve in the future are still unknown. But we can trust … because LIFE is in charge.

 

PSALM 23

Background. Perhaps the most famous psalm of all, certainly the most familiar. The theme is trust and thanksgiving. Yahweh is imagined first as a shepherd, a constant metaphor for kings in ancient Mesopotamia, and then as the host at a banquet.

Reflection. This psalm points to the ultimate basis for internal peace and great joy. Matter’s LIFE itself directs our destiny through the innate guidance systems of ontogeny and evolution, and the energies of the conatus and intelligent synteresis embedded in our living matter. We have no other way of knowing how we should live. Our bodies direct us. There is no “revelation” apart from LIFE to which we have privileged access in the interior depths of our own conscious organism.

With such a divine guide intimately united to our own selves, all of us, we have nothing to fear. We are not isolated and defenseless before our enemies. We do not need parents because we are no longer children.  But what we have is what LIFE has made us — fearless, adult, intelligent and collaborative — repositories and agents of LIFE. LIFE guides us in us and as us. It is we — the mirrors and agents of LIFE — that do this in collaboration with LIFE. We trust what LIFE can do in us.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

LIFE has provided me with itself. I am wealthy beyond measure. I am content wherever I am and whatever I have. Fears and worries evaporate. LIFE’s project determines what I do. Dangers and sufferings will not derail me. I am fearless; I carry the power of LIFE. I am LIFE with this face.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

This is LIFE’s house, not mine. I was invited here and treated royally. LIFE opened its home to me. I have been given a gift beyond measure: LIFE itself, as if it were my own. I am overwhelmed. From cradle to grave my journey is assured. I am where I belong.

 

PSALM 24

Background. A processional psalm of entrance to sacred precincts. It uses some of the terminology of enthronement ceremonies. It seems it is the king and his battle companion, Yahweh the warrior, who seek entrance to the temple.

The “seas” are ancient chaos, the enemy of creative order. Yahweh’s conquest of the waters created the world and established his universal power. Questions and instructive answers (torahs) occur three times. In the first, we are taught that entrance is restricted to those who do right, do not worship idols and who are just and honest with others. To enter means to seek Yahweh’s face, therefore Yahweh’s power is equated to moral uprightness.

The last two torahs emphatically acclaim Yahweh’s power and protection. The gates of the temple open to this overwhelming power: Yahweh, mighty as an army in battle array.

Reflection. Matter’s LIFE evolved us all, the earth and everything that has emerged from its rich pool of elements. LIFE conquered obstacles beyond anything we can imagine and here we are, humankind, the mirror and agents of LIFE. We recognize LIFE as our creator and we want to embrace it in itself. Where can we find it? Where does it live?

It is in us. We are LIFE; LIFE’s power and character are on display in our moral lives: if we don’t glut ourselves with gross gratifications; if we don’t worship ourselves and take ourselves as our own source of life and energy; and if we don’t cheat or exploit others. This is the face of LIFE — our just and moral behavior. The face of LIFE is our face … doing what’s right.

If LIFE resides in a temple, then we are the temple. Open the doors to this temple and let more LIFE in to reign and to rule … to transform us into itself until we lose ourselves in its self-empty­ing generosity. What is this LIFE that we want to enter and take over our life? It is an overwhelming power, like an army deployed for combat, the power to give LIFE.

 

1 The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;

2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.

LIFE’s creative power is on display in evolution. Evolution is a totally non-violent process that creates by finding ways to harmonize with what already exists and utilize the resources made freely available. It never coerces. It never forces anything. And yet it has totally transformed the face of the earth. What used to be an inert pool of elements is now teeming with life that has filled every nook and cranny on the planet. LIFE now rules the earth.

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?

4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

We see LIFE at work in evolutionary creation, but can we ever touch it where it resides — directly, personally, face to face? Yes we can. We touch LIFE directly and personally in ourselves … LIFE resides in us. When we live as LIFE, with clean hands and pure heart, obedient to LIFE alone and not to a false “self,” and honest and just with the people around us, LIFE lives in us. The face of LIFE is our face. When you find LIFE you will find yourself.

7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.

9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Open the rusty, creaking doors of your closed involuted “temple” to LIFE. Open to light and fresh air. Let LIFE in, to rule, to display its awesome power, to vanquish the enemies that have erected a dead, false and rotting “self” in the place of LIFE. There is no self but LIFE alone, for we are LIFE. Open up to LIFE, LIFE is what we’re after. LIFE is like a mighty army set in battle array.

Surrender

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We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017

Benedict’s Humility

3,300 words

One of the major distorting factors in the formation of Western Christianity was the unnatural focus on celibacy due to the Platonic denigration of matter and elevation of “spirit” to a separate metaphysical substance. Sometimes celebrated with allegorical erotic imagery from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” celibacy was often taken literally as a “marriage” with God. Those and associated distortions were borne forward by the monastic movement that became the principal residence of those ideals. But it would be shortsighted in the extreme to identify monasticism solely with its principal flaw and overlook the millennia of struggle it contributed in the pursuit of an earthly human happiness.

It might seem strange to characterize the monastic quest as “this worldly” when, here in the West at least, it comes attached to a Christian religion whose fixation on Plato’s other world built an extraordinary civilization powered by an inverted dynamism of fear and alienation. The fact is that monasticism antedated Christianity by many centuries and ascetics who were not yet caught in the trap of Plato’s imaginary world had already established the terms of the search, and those terms were happiness in the only world there was. Western monasticism inherited that movement, and offers an ultimate happiness whose achieve­ment, reversing the priorities of Christianity, is explicitly conditioned on abandoning any desire for possessions of any kind, and that includes after death.

Benedict of Nursia

The Benedictine Order has long been acknowledged as the beginning and epicenter of western monasticism. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, lived from 487 to 547. His order became a widespread, multi-community phenomenon and his ancient Rule was used in one form or another by later religious orders. The Rule was written by Benedict himself, and will be the subject of our inquiry.

Even though celibacy was an unconditional requirement of Benedict’s Rule, it seems its significance came more from Plato’s spiritualism than as a by-product of interpersonal relationship with “God.” Not only is nuptial imagery not found anywhere in the Rule, but the “love of God” or “love of Christ” are sparsely mentioned and then mainly as motivational formalities. There is no direct and explicit focus on a personal relationship with God or Christ as the driving force in the monastic pursuit as conceived by Benedict’s Rule.

But a thorough reading reveals much more. The Rule tells us about the way The Christian message was understood and transmitted in the west in Late Antiquity, and how monasticism conceived its role in that context.

For example, the Rule as written is not centered on Catholic sacramental ritual and the necessary role of the priest.  The word “eucharist” never appears in the Rule, and where “mass” occurs it is always a schedule reference, as in “such and such will be done after mass.” Sacramental “grace” seems not to even have been a theological category and “confession” was understood generically and not as a sacramental event made available by priestly absolution. The Rule seems to consider the entry of priests into the monastery as something of a problem; the Rule makes it quite explicit that they should not presume to perform any sacerdotal functions outside of the direct orders of the abbot. Clearly the monastery wasn’t just a parish for the spiritual elite.

The Benedictine rule has guided the Christian monastic search for wisdom and human fulfillment for 1500 years. It is a short, simple document, produced in the middle of the sixth century. Scholars agree that it is a milder redaction of one written some decades earlier anonymously known as The Rule of the Master. Benedict’s Rule reads more like a friendly letter designed to outline the general intent of the monastery than a systematic document laying out a detailed program and daily schedule.

Clues to the unsophisticated nature of its recommendations are found throughout. Chapter 7, which will be our principal focus in this essay, is a prime example. The Chapter is exclusively devoted to humility. It lists in total 12 “degrees” of humility, no one of which could ever be considered a greater degree than any other. The reader gets the impression that by making a cumulative list, Benedict was trying to emphasize what Elliott would say 1500 years later: “humility is endless.” The unique focus of the chapter and its central location in the rule suggest that humility might be considered the leitmotiv of the Rule.

Humility

But the importance of humility was not a personal insight of Benedict’s. John Cassian, who brought the experience of the Eastern desert hermits to the West, listed “10 rungs on the ladder of humility” in his Institutes written around 420. The Rule of the Master which was composed later by someone who clearly was influenced by Cassian’s text, expanded the list to the 12 “degrees” later repeated by Benedict.

In chapter 5 of Benedict’s 73 chapter Rule, he gives away the game and says that the first degree of humility is “obedience.” He says nothing more about it at that point. But by chapter 7 it sounds like he has decided to work from a different paradigm because there, without acknowledging that he had already declared himself on the issue, he says: the first degree of humility is the “fear of God.”

This is a key oversight and a clue to Benedict’s whole vision. By fear he’s not kidding. He’s talking about being terrified of “the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God.” As becomes clear by the end of the chapter, this first degree really means “first step;” it is one of the two brackets that frame the entire discussion. The Chapter opens by declaring that the monk is expected to begin out of fear of punishment and hope for reward. But after he has mastered the whole 12 degrees of humility, it is hoped he will be a changed man. The last paragraph of chapter 7 reads:

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.

This clarifies the matter. The phrase “fear of God” was not a generic placeholder, an hyperbole for taking your moral responsibilities seriously. In Benedict’s view you come to his program because you’re scared. You can’t live a Christian life and you know what that will mean for you in the end. But he has no problem with that. In fact it seems quite natural, and the alert reader even gets the impression that this fear and the monastic program work in tandem.

But a young man in the sixth century, afraid for his “soul,” who read the Rule before he entered, would realize that the monastery’s goal is precisely to cast out the very fear that brought him there. He would know up front that the monk is someone in the process of having his motivation transformed from selfish to selfless, from fearful to fearless, from self-protective and acquisitive to abundantly generous, from a resistant and grudging compliance to a zest and pleasure in aligning oneself with LIFE itself. Benedict’s word for this transformation is “humility.” That one word, in Benedict’s Rule, I believe, contains the very essence of his view of human happiness as understood by a sixth century Christian in the Latin West.

Fear

It’s difficult for us not to question the source of that initial fear. Why should the Christian message ever have inspired fear? Obviously in the sixth century there was real fear of “God’s” punishment and the eternal damnation that would cap it off. And I believe it would also be fair to say that if “fear” could be identified by Benedict as the universal and necessary source of the monastic vocation, fear must have been the prevailing motivation proposed by the official Church — in its preaching, sacramental rituals and personal counselling — for all Christians.

I want to point out that most people throughout history and probably even today, would see nothing extraordinary in this. It is exactly what they think religion is all about: people doing what they are supposed to do (as commanded by “God”) and by that means establishing the rule of justice — peace and harmony among men. Failing to obey entails punishment. Religion, and in this case, Christianity, is envisioned primarily as a behavioral program, subordinate to the good of society and therefore something of an ancillary political ideology. In this case perfect obedience — universal moral compliance by all members of the community at all times — would usher in the millennium. It would correspond to the definition of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often. God will reign over the earth when humankind obeys his commands.

Some, like myself, would challenge this interpretation. As I read it, Jesus’ message was not some kind of re-promulga­tion of the “law,” but rather the definitive announcement of the love of a “Father” whose irreversible benevolence translates into a forgiveness without limit. The keynote is mercy born of compassion. Our Father’s love for us then becomes the model and motivation for our behavior. It is no longer a matter of law, if it ever was. We are to imitate “God” not obey him. It was a message that was intended to cast out fear. If Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” he meant the community of people who had heard the message of God’s endless forbearance and lived compassionate joyous lives in the knowledge of their unbreakable bonds of fearless intimacy with the source of LIFE.

Was Benedict one of them? Is the Rule’s explicit declaration that the very purpose of “humility” was to cast out fear, an indication that Benedict recognized a seminal defect in the secular Church’s message? In other words, did he see monasticism as an evangelical corrective, healing the distorted souls of men who had been deformed by the Imperial Church’s flawed transmission of the gospel and thereby bringing it back to its proper bearing?

Wasn’t there another possibility? Wouldn’t an obedience habituated by years of repeated practice, reinforced by a rule, an abbot and a community of fellow participants, give confidence and peace of mind to the fearful monk, a confidence that would also appear to cast out fear? I believe this amounts to asking: in Benedict’s view, does fear remain an aspect of motivation throughout the monk’s life, or does it actually get cast out?

The Rule says (7:11)

The monk is always to turn over in his mind how all who despise God will fall into hell for their sins, as well as the everlasting life prepared for those who fear God.

So fear remains — in the background, for sure — but it’s always there. It seems that Benedict and the “secular” Church were on the same page, after all. Claims that monasticism was a reaction on the part of persecution-hardened Christians to the sudden wealth, ease and luxury that accompanied Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, did not correspond to the inversion of gospel values that turned Christianity into a quid pro quo moral enterprise. That inversion had to have preceded Constantine’s conversion and, in my opinion, in fact made the latter possible. With the class division of Christian society into elites and commoners, the investiture of the clergy with magical powers, the transformation of the sacraments into quasi-hydraulic suppliers of “grace,” and the fear of eternal damnation for failing to obey the law, Greco-Roman Christianity represented a significant reversal of the egalitarian structures, symbolic rituals and free forgiveness of the Christian communities founded in the apostolic age.

So it’s no surprise that the monastic reaction would also have occurred earlier. Antony and the first of the Eastern desert Fathers began their ascetic experiments in 270, an entire generation before the Diocletian persecution of 303 which was terminated by Constantine’s victory in 312. From Antony’s own writings and his authoritative biography by Athanasius of Alexandria it is more than clear that the essential structures of Greco-Roman Christianity had already displaced the formations evident in Paul’s epistles. Gone was what Luther would identify as Paul’s emphasis on “free forgiveness,” in favor of a quid pro quo system in which moral behavior — obedience to God’s law — was rewarded or punished according to your level of compliance. Gone also was any enthusiastic anticipation of an imminent return of Christ. Eschatological urgency had been transferred to the personal Judgment facing each individual “soul” at the time of death and was the new source of the “fear” that western religions offer as their “stock-in-trade,” proven effective in the running of the far flung and culturally diverse Roman Empire.

obedience

It’s important to elucidate the link between these issues. The “fear” and “hope for reward” that is generated is exclusively connected to compliance with law. “Obedience” is the subjective disposition that activates compliance. So the fear that serves as the motivation for entering the monastery is the antithesis of obedience: fear arises precisely from disobedience. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that humility, clearly identified by the founders of western monasticism as the apex of Christian perfection, should be primarily the work and result of obedience.

But the issue is more complex.

The means to humility, in Benedict’s strategy, was obedience. Not only the initial announcement in chapter 5, but then in chapter 7 the second degree of humility reverts to “doing the will of him who sent me.” The third follows hard on the second and counsels the monk to “submit to the Superior in all obedience.”

The fourth degree of humility is that the monk “hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even, possibly, injustice, enduring all without growing weary and running away.” The unapologetic concatenation of humility with obedience in step after step as the driving force in spiritual development in Benedict’s mind is not disputable.

It’s hard to miss the point. These first four degrees of humility are simply different ways of restating that the most important tool for personal development, a tool the monastery is intent on utilizing, is obedience. This is more important than it may seem at first. For I contend that after Benedict’s establishment of humility as transformative of human motivation, his coupling of humility with obedience makes it unmistakably clear that not only is obedience a means and not an end in itself, but that the “kingdom of ‘God,’” for those who might have been erroneously deceived by the de facto preaching and pastoral program of the Church into thinking that it was essentially compliance with law, is to be identified as precisely this personal moral/affective transformation, and nothing else. The “kingdom of God” is the community of the humble: those who have gotten beyond frightened obedience.

This is a complex and somewhat convoluted point; but I hope I can make it clear: Regardless of the distortions of the gospel message that propelled compliant obedience into prominence in the Christian life of Late Antiquity, the monastic ideal as re-presented by Benedict is personal transformation — human healing and the creative energy it releases — not social harmony, distributive justice, or any other community goal, however noble, achieved by a dead, fearful, forced or self-interested compliance. The fact that the pastoral program of the “secular” Church served to provide a solid first step on the road to perfection would have fit perfectly into Benedict’s generally accepted scheme of things. But however valid that first step of fear was, Benedict was also very clear that it had to be transcended. It was not the fullness of Christian life; and it was the monastery’s job to start from there and carry it to fulfillment.

I believe Benedict’s Rule is indirectly stating that the purpose of the monastery is not to make men obedient … or to get a particular pattern of social behavior habituated, rooted in place and running smoothly. Obedience, in other words, was not an end in itself, necessary for social harmony. While the common good was clearly an indirect beneficiary, peace in the community was not the very purpose for demanding obedience. If it were, the motivation that the monk brought to the performance of this compliance would be irrelevant. The end would be the compliance itself, nothing else; the “12 degrees” and endless pursuit of humility would be superfluous. There would be no talk of “casting out fear,” for fear would continue be the most effective driver of compliance.

Benedict’s rule was not a program of social compliance. The Kingdom of God had to be established not in behavior but in the rectification of the emotions, the alignment of the human individual with the joy of LIFE and compassionate service toward the universal suffering LIFE entails. Moral behavior, thirst for justice, peacemaking, mutual aid, would necessarily follow; hence obedience was also a bell-whether: it was an indicator of who was humble. Only those who had gotten past having their own way were capable of obeying with a full heart and there would be no way to hide it. Where there was that kind of obedience, there had to be humility.

From the very first it is made abundantly clear that the most important tool for the achievement of humility is obedience. This immediately gives obedience a much higher purpose than the good order and efficient running of the monastery. By making obedience the servant of humility and not of good order, Benedict made obedience subordinate to personal growth and spiritual expansion, and not the suppressive submersion of the individual in a well-oiled machine. Did his successors all share that priority?

Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”

There is much to reflect on as we look at this important development in our religious history. It illustrates with great clarity the issues we have been confronting in our pursuit of a new understanding of the “nature” of God as revealed by modern science. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sixth century Roman Catholicism that began to push people into monasteries was not very different from the Tridentine Catholicism that many of us were formed in prior to the Second Vatican Council. I would also wager that in many places not much has changed.

The “fear” that drove Christians into monastic life could only have been provided by a personal, punishing “God.” That means that somewhere along the line those who were in charge of the Christian communities had to decide that the loving, forgiving “Father” they had received from the parables of Jesus had to be re-imagined and re-issued as a wrathful punitive authority whose primary concern was compliance with commandments, not compassion for the self-lacerating grasping generated by the harshness of life. The tradition that Benedict inherited understood Jesus’ message, and utilized its distorted application to reverse the intent of that application and its effects. By making obedience ancillary to humility, it placed the broken human heart and the abject poverty of humankind in a position of revelatory prominence. It was humility that told us what “God” was really like: a “God” that “divinized” the humble, not the compliant. What was that all about?

In the next post I will turn to another monk, Johannes Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican whose radical re-conceptualization of “God” — in terms I believe consistent with modern science — was elaborated together with an equally radical re-conceptualization of the significance of obedience. Eckhart’s vision will help us move toward an ascetical practice that is consistent with the best insights of our ancient tradition while functioning totally within the sphere of the transcendent materialism that explains the reality of our universe and our place in it.